Government & Politics

Union concerned that fire dispatchers will get shorted in consolidation

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan, in the works for four years, to consolidate the city’s 911 operations under a single agency is one step closer to implementation following a vote today by the Orleans Parish Communication District’s board of commissioners today.

The goal is to reduce the time it takes to answer and dispatch emergency calls.

The vote gave preliminary approval to a contract between the city and the Communication District. If it is implemented, the agreement would move 911 operations, and about 140 employees, from three separate city departments — police, fire and EMS — to the Communication District.

The board was expected to vote on final approval of the agreement at today’s meeting. But because of a number of unanswered questions, the board voted to wait until at least its February  meeting to sign the agreement.

Those questions are mostly personnel-related. City officials working on consolidation have yet to present a full employee  policy for 911 call center employees. They  will lose their city Civil Service protections once they move to the Communication District, which is a state-created agency, not a city department.

Also unclear is whether call center employees moving from the city to the Communication District will see pay raises, as city officials working on the consolidation plan have promised. City officials did not prepare a pay analysis for the meeting. It appeared at several points throughout the meeting that board Chairman Terry Ebbert would  delay the vote today because he lacked that information.

“What we need to do is get a spreadsheet and go through all those 140 employees,” Ebbert said. “Then you can look at Employee A, see where they are today, put them through the process … Then if there’s a disagreement, at least we have the data to know what we’re talking about.”

Eric Melancon, a Landrieu administration official working on 911 consolidation, promised the board that a pay breakdown, showing pay pre- and post-consolidation, will be prepared for the board within two weeks.

Firefighters union President Nick Felton, who represents 23 fire communications staffers at the call center, said he believes that many will actually see pay cuts, or at best, their pay will remain the same, even though their new jobs will require additional training in handling EMS and police emergency calls.

State law requires fire dispatchers to be paid at fire captain salaries, at least 25 percent above firefighters. Felton said he believed that since all call-center employees will be taking fire calls after consolidation, they should all have to be paid at that level. But First Deputy Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who is also on the board, said the city’s lawyers don’t believe that law will apply to Communication District employees.

Fire-dispatcher pay also includes additional pay above their base salaries from the state and from a local property tax, as well as state-mandated “longevity pay” for length of service.

“What I’m saying to you, chief, is that when we look at total pay … their take home, their total compensation, at the end of the year will be lower,” Felton said during the meeting to Fire Department Chief and Communication District board member Timothy McConnell.

Objecting to the argument about fairness for the fire dispatchers, Kopplin noted that fire dispatchers now make significantly more money on average than other call center employees.

“What do you tell the folks who are currently police call-takers, who are now being paid substantially less?” Kopplin said in response to Felton’s concerns.

“We have to acknowledge that the fire employees have benefited from a strong union. The police and EMS employees haven’t had that,” said Communication District Deputy Director Frith Malin. The firefighters, she added, “should not be punished for that.”

But they may lose that representation as a result of consolidation, another point of contention for Felton. The collective-bargaining agreement between the city and the firefighters won’t cover Communication District employees unless its board votes to recognize it.

One issue that may not be resolved before the next board meeting, however, is the staffing plan for the consolidated call center. Training Coordinator Shinar Haynes, who will be responsible for developing consolidation training programs, told the board that the staffing plan she saw when she was hired, about six weeks ago, was “not sufficient” and would not allow the call center to meet national standards on call-answer times.

Reducing answer times, which could help to reduce on-the-ground response times, is why the city backed consolidation in the first place.

“It is very disingenuous. It is unfair to tell them we’re going to meet this standard without enough people,” she said. “Let’s not put a band-aid on a broken leg. Let’s fix the leg.”

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